When Katelynn Simpson returned to Durango from her stint at the Potawatomi Leadership Program, she knew she wasn’t the same.
Simpson, a sophomore at Fort Lewis College studying adventure education and Native American and Indigenous studies, was selected to join the 2019 class of the Potawatomi Leadership Program, a six-week program that brings 10 Potawatomi tribal members from across the world to Shawnee, Oklahoma, to learn about the government, culture and economic development of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Participants are chosen based on academic performance, submitted essays and a letter of recommendation.
“It was nothing like I thought it would be,” Simpson said. “My expectations were far exceeded. I was kind of nervous because whenever I say I’m Native American, people are like, ‘Well, you don’t look Native American.’ That can be disheartening. Going into the program I was a little nervous because I assumed everyone else was going to look Native American.”
Instead, the Texas native felt fully accepted by her peers. For the next six weeks, she, along with her other class members, learned more about their culture, legislature, education, the casino business, designing their own regalia, dance, naming ceremonies, powwows, gardening and art. The group was also gifted with eagle feathers during a ceremony for the first time in the program, which is a big honor in the Potawatomi culture, Simpson said.
“Every single day from eight to five we were shadowing departments, and then afterward we had an hour off for a break and then we would do cultural teaching. Some nights we would be working on beading or working on regalia, which is the clothing we wear for ceremonies and powwows,” she said.
For Simpson, who is the type of person who takes geology classes just for fun, learning about her heritage in such an immersive way was perfect for her.
“It was very tiring but it was one of those experiences that you go through and you can’t possibly leave being the same person that you were coming into the program,” she said.
Simpson first learned about the program through her aunt who encouraged her to apply. Her now-deceased grandmother, who Simpson gets her Potawatomi heritage from, always wanted her grandchildren to get involved in the tribe. So, for Simpson, it was a way to honor her grandmother.
“I knew how much it meant to the family,” she said. “(The tribe) does so much with scholarships and advising. They have great services for all the citizens of the Potawatomi, not just college students. I really wanted to learn and reciprocate my gratitude for what they’ve helped me with.”
Inspired by her experiences in the program, she hopes she’s able to pass along that passion to fellow FLC Native American students and educate her classmates about her tribe.
“My biggest takeaway, even though I went into the program thinking, ‘Oh, I have leadership skills so I’m going to be a leader,’ was learning to be open.
“I want to encourage them (FLC students) that even if you don’t think you look Native American, don’t be afraid to dive into your culture and learn. Don’t be afraid to get involved.”
As for the future, while Simpson looks forward to eventually having a career with the National Parks Service, she also hopes to return to Oklahoma and give back to her tribe.
“One day, I want to go back and be in a leadership position whether that be work in legislation, the education department, at the heritage center... . However I can give back to the tribe. That’s what makes me feel Native American.”